Not so fast; a phased array wake-up call discussed

Optimizing performance for inflight Internet is a balancing act between three main components: satellites, modems and antennae. New satellites are launching somewhat regularly and we know what improvements those will bring, whether incremental or step-changes. The latest generation of modems can support significantly improved performance over the prior generation, well over 100 megabits/second to a plane. Getting to the next generation in antenna technology, however, will drive further shifts in the industry.

Moving to a flat panel architecture, an electronically steered phased array system, will dramatically lower the profile on the fuselage and improve performance for certain regions. In September 2014, Panasonic Avionics announced it had tapped Boeing Defense, Space & Security to build a new phased array Ku-band antenna targeted at narrowbody aircraft with availability in the fourth quarter of this year. In a follow-up interview with RGN, Boeing explained how this third generation technology differs from the original phased array antenna selected for its long-defunct Connexion by Boeing service (the Connexion antenna wasn’t adopted commercially but is still flying on Air Force One). At that time, Boeing also discussed why it was imperative to drive out cost with the new design for Panasonic.

RGN can confirm, however, that this particular effort faltered early. Panasonic’s David Bruner tells RGN that airlines are “not willing to pay” for the higher cost of more efficient antennas at this time. The pressure to save money in terms of lower profile/cheaper operating costs has mostly disappeared for airlines due to lower fuel prices. Panasonic recognizes that there will be a need for this technology in the future, so the project isn’t necessarily completely dead. But for the time being nobody seems wiling to pay for the more expensive CapEx, cheaper OpEx hardware.

Getting the first generation of phased array antennae into production will be significant, however. It could open up the smaller regional aircraft market to technologies other than air-to-ground (ATG) connectivity, for instance. But it is the generation after that which will be game-changing for the small jet market, according to Bruner. “In the next 24 months there will be major breakthroughs in antenna technology that will blow away this barrier. The smallest aircraft will have an antenna that will provide equivalent performance to anything you can do with ATG [except latency],” says Bruner. Panasonic’s relationship with Astronics Aerosat might get the firm to that regional jet solution.

Panasonic’s timeline is rather akin to that being suggested by Intelsat, which has seen two successful satellite launches in 2016 and despite financial difficulties, appears to be transitioning into the HTS era relatively smoothly (despite a thruster issue with IS-33e). Taking full advantage of these new HTS satellites will depend on advances in antenna technology and the company is working with third parties, including Phasor, on such advances.

“The devil is in the details,” Intelsat SVP strategy Bruno Fromont tells RGN in relation to the firm’s work on lighter, more flexible and more efficient antenna offerings. “Our view is that it takes a while to validate the technology, to reach the cost point that will be required. We expect a short, midterm announcement that uses [electronically steered antenna] technologies but to go really mainstream and to get the production levels that are needed to reduce the cost could take years.”

kontron newestFromont describes his company’s role as “watching, helping and guiding” the antenna makers to get to better performance. Part of that is shrinking the package down as small as possible while still maintaining the necessary physics to keep performance levels up.

Operating in equatorial regions with mechanical antennae often can result in signal overlap with adjacent satellites due to the beam shape. Operators typically counter this by reducing transmit strength which reduces available bandwidth. A phased array solution provides a targeted beam which allows full transmission power without overlap interference.

But, notes Fromont, “there is only so much you can do from an antenna technology perspective after a while the space segment must adjust. That is why we are investing in OneWeb and we think it will compliment the standard GEO solutions. Especially for the equatorial regions. The [antenna] hardware makes a big difference but at some point the space segment will have to play a role there to alleviate issues.”

Fromont is not the only one speaking about such hybrid networks;  SES recently talked up O3b as part of its strategic partnership with Thales Inflyt. And both parties shared a similar timeline for introducing flat panel antennas to support connectivity via the forthcoming SES-17 satellite.

Cell phones today are able to rapidly and seamlessly switch between towers and even frequency bands; aircraft systems have generally skipped that advanced design in favor of lighter and simpler systems. Eventually that will have to change and the new generations of antennae are part of that. But a significant part of the bet right now is on integrating unproven technologies and hoping that development, certification and adoption cycles can speed up to match those goals. Ultimately Panasonic expects to have “multiple pieces of technology optimized at different airplanes fly different kinds of missions”, according to Bruner.

Until then, all players continue deploying their mechanical antennae of choice. 

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Photo at top of the Panasonic phased array antenna.